Monday, December 21, 2009

Greetings from the other side

I’m alive!

And feel fine. Seriously. On Thursday night I said to G that my sincerest wish was that when we were through this surgery, we could both look back and say, “That was no big deal.” And so far, even though it’s only been a few days, I feel I can confidently say, “That was nothing.”

My surgery took place at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. We arrived at the hospital a little after six and checked in. I was given a hospital gown, a hair net, slipper socks, and some funny hose that help prevent blood clots. A nurse came in to take my vitals and several research assistants had me fill out paperwork for studies I’d agreed to be a part of. My mom scratched my back like she used to do when I was a kid, and I cuddled on the little hospital bed with G, wrapping myself around him so tight, embracing and nuzzling and burrowing. And then a “transfer nurse” (so-called because he’d be transferring me into surgery) appeared in the doorway and told me it was time. It is in moments like these that you realize your entire frame of reference for how to act in such situations comes from television and film. I expected an orchestral swell of sentimental music, a cut to slow-mo, a shining tear descending languidly down my husband’s cheek. But no. I hugged everyone goodbye (G got two hugs and a couple extra kisses) and I walked down the hall with my nurse, into the surgical unit, and laid down on a gurney.

I wasn’t particularly nervous yet, mostly because the whole set-up seemed so unreal. The week prior to surgery-—when I thought for sure I’d go on crying jags and descend in to fits of panic—-I was eerily calm, resigned almost to my fate. And that’s how I felt as I stared up at the lights and tried to memorize the pattern on the curtain separating me from the patient across the way who, I overheard, was having some kind of endoscopic procedure. There was no turning back now. This was really going to happen. Might as well just accept it.

Both my doctors stopped by, and Dr. F, my plastic surgeon, drew on me with a cold black pen. He asked if I had any questions, and I said no, because honestly, the only one I had left—-“Am I going to be OK?”—-was the only one he couldn’t answer. Then the anesthesiologist dropped in and gave me something to calm my nerves. Now, this had been described to me as the chemical equivalent of a “cool glass of California white,” which, at 7 in the morning and on an empty stomach, should have given me quite a buzz, but it didn't do too much for me. By the time they pushed me on my gurney into the operating room—-again, lights whizzing by overhead, a view I have seen only in movies-—I wanted to call attention to the fact that I was far too alert and awake to possibly be put under any time soon. An oxygen mask appeared, hovering before my face. I was asked by a disembodied voice to breathe deeply. And that was it.

I woke up in recovery seemingly seconds later. In reality, about four hours had passed, but I was unaware of the forward march of time. I was in and out of consciousness and was bitchslapped by a debilitating wave of nausea—-but I didn’t puke, mostly because my body was still waking up from the anesthetic and I couldn’t wretch properly. And then, more wheeling, more lights overhead. My mom, my husband, my father, waiting in my hospital room. I made it.

I cried. Waves of sobs, tears of joy. I was so happy to be done, to be alive, to be on the other side of surgery. Nothing else mattered--not the fogginess in my brain, the myriad tubes protruding from my body, the disorientation or the lingering wooziness. The thing that I feared the most, that I wouldn’t live to see life on the other side of this fear of surgery, or this fear of disease—-it was gone. I was alive.

The rest of Friday was a blur. My friend A-—she of boob voyage planning fame-—came and sat with Gabe while my parents went back to their hotel to rest. I was in and out of coherence and consciousness, occasionally talking in my sleep (much to my embarrassment). In addition to the oral medication I was on, I was hooked up to a pain pump and had some sort of numbing agent threaded directly into my incision site. I was also catheterized, which was good, because I was so thirsty, I would have had to get up every few minutes to use the bathroom (in fact, I recall somewhere in my haze, a male nurse tech exclaiming he had never seen a more filled catheter tank. That’s me: a good pee-er.). But sometime in the early evening, my skin began to crawl. It was an itch like I had never felt before, a lily-pod hopping frog of an itch that moved somewhere else on my body, from my calf to my forehead and back, the moment I could reach it. I had both G and A clawing at my back, but nothing is more ineffective—-or frustrating—-than trying to describe the location of an itch or the intensity with which you want to be scratched. The nurses seemed baffled—-though it is clear to me I was having some kind of reaction to the pain medication or anesthetic—-and they offered me only doses of Benadryl in ever increasing amounts despite its ineffectiveness. Before bed, I finally got some relief, thanks to some kind of antihistamine whose name escapes me, and was able to sleep relatively well that first night.

I was awoken at quarter to six by my surgeon who appeared, like a holy vision, the light from the hall ensconcing him, at the foot of my bed. G had spent the night with me on my cot, and Dr. F had to maneuver around him in the small room, but he managed a look at my chest and declared everything to be—-bumpy and bruised as it looked from my vantage point—-as it should. Saturday passed inconsistently—-the time seeming to slow and quicken, a strange sort of painkiller-induced elasticity that made the second hand on the old-fashioned wall clock rotate at uneven speeds. G fell sick later that day with a stomach bug, and though he wanted to be there with me, we decided my dad would sit vigil while he got some rest. I read trashy magazines, flipped channels, entertained visitors, and learned to get in and out of bed (goodbye catheter, my old friend).

I was discharged Sunday afternoon and am writing from home, from my bed, surrounded by cats and pillows. I feel fine, incredibly. In fact, when I spoke to my doctor’s nurse this morning, I asked her if something was wrong because I don’t feel as bad as I thought I would. In fact, nothing, thus far, has been as bad as I thought it would. And dare I say it, because to anyone else, they are mutilated, misshapen, multi-colored monstrosities, but my new boobs even look better than I expected.

Today, I’ve felt a few pangs of, not regret, per se, but melancholia perhaps: the letdown after the great climax. I’m done. Now what? What do I do with all that anxiety? Where does it all go? I’m sure I’ll experience some highs and lows in the next weeks (not to mention months and years), and that’s to be expected. But despite all that, I am happy, so very, very happy to be on the other side, alive, recovering, and very lucky to have this second chance at a healthy life.


  1. Thought you might want some insight into the itching- I'm a pharmacy student & we learned just a few weeks ago in class that opioids can cause an intense itching sensation. I'm guessing the pain meds you were given were, most likely, opioids, so that's why I would guess you had the itching.

    Just to back up my words, I found a website. It doesn't say very much about it, but it does say it.

    I'm glad to hear everything is going so well for you! I just found your blog a few weeks ago when someone on Twitter linked to it & I enjoy reading it. Because of the material you talk about, that seems like an odd thing to say, but my grandmother had a double mastectomy & rebuild about ten years ago. I never really knew what she went through. Your blog has given me insight into her world & has made me look up to her even more than I already did.

    Good luck to you & congrats on your second chance at a healthy life!

  2. Yeah, I've heard of people getting itchy. Maybe you were just covered in TINY BUGS!!!!!! EVERYWHERE!!!!!!! AHHHH!!!!!!

    So glad you're home and feeling a'ight. The no-biggie-ness seems about right, you being such a mighty badass and all. Lots of love and air hugs.

  3. I'm so happy everything went well!!! and glad you are home resting with your cats; they make the best fur nurses!!!

    I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and sending you wishes for a happy and health 2010!


  4. "A mighty badass" is right!!! You rock! For me, never had more pain in my life. I'm so glad you're on the other end of the spectrum!!! More hugs and Merry Christmas!

  5. Thank you so much for writing this blog! I just (on Christmas Eve, in fact) received the news that my BRCA 2 test came back positive, and I've been so very worried. Being able to read your experiences is really helping my cope.

    Best to you and Happy New Year!

  6. Hooray!! (again) by the way, itching? Morphine has a side effect, itching. Yuck. I itched my legs off and begged the nurses to scratch them when they came out of my super tight DVT stockings. Sexy...not!